Advent I 2019 – SMC
Have you written your note to Father Christmas yet? Well, if you haven’t there’s still plenty of time, of course, and I would imagine that one way you will work out what you want for Christmas is by noticing what other people have. “Oh, I like that cooking pot that so-and-so has! I must ask for that pair of trainers for Christmas because so-and-so said they were really comfortable.” This is a perfectly human and logical approach to the issue of what we would like but we have to be on the guard against jealousy and envy. Hear the warning again that St Paul makes which we’ve just heard: “Let us live decently as people do in the daytime: … no jealousy.”
The two words jealousy and envy mean very similar things. When we use the word envy we’re always referring to something someone else has. You might be envious of that person’s car. You might also be jealous of that person’s car. Here they mean the same thing. The word jealousy is also used to refer to something we have already. We can be jealous of our own phone meaning we don’t really like other people using it: we jealously guard something.
A second little consideration on the use of this word ‘jealous’ is that in the Scriptures we see God being described as jealous. In the Ten Commandments, for example, the second commandment against idolatry is given because God describes Himself as a “jealous God” (Exodus 20:5). God is here saying how He protects His people and that He is clear of what is due to Him and what is not due to Him. This isn’t God being a spoilt brat, but it is a sensible instruction on how the universe is ordered, how we are programmed as human beings and trying to live our lives aware of how things are meant to be. It is because of this positive use of the word that Paul elsewhere writes that he was jealous with a godly jealousy for the Christians in Corinth, given the amount of investment he made in the people there it was understandable (II Corinthians 11:2).
The way we possess things and the way we desire things is to be free from envy. This is the Tenth Commandment received from Moses up Mount Sinai where the word covet is used to indicate this envy: “You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox,” (Exodus 20:17). The crucial thing in this is not begrudging others what they own, what they possess. We may not have much materially but it is sinful for us to resent those who have lots. We may not be happy, we may be lonely, but we are not to be bitter when we see others who have lots of friends. This is when our wanting is at war with charity and so becomes a sin.
St Basil lived in fourth century Turkey and we can still read one of his homilies against envy. He warns us: “As rust wears away iron, so envy corrodes the soul it inhabits.” He reminds his listeners of how much harm is caused by envy in the Scriptures: Cain kills Abel because he is envious of the blessings God gives His brothers; Joseph’s brothers throw him down a hole to be sold into slavery because they resent the attention their father gives him; those who crucify Christ are jealous of the powers they see Him exercising in His miracles.
Envy has sadly also always had a part in political discourse as we might be reminded of during this General Election campaign. All sides of the political spectrum will fall in to the danger of portraying a particular group of people as having it easy: be it the super rich or those receiving support through benefits. Fair points might be being made in the course of the debate but it can sometimes be trying to play to our sinful character and stir up within us a jealousy of others. Let not this envy take root in our hearts, my brothers and sisters.
Three ways to counter this.
One, in our prayers let’s not only thank God for what we have but thank Him for what others have. We can do that really well while we’re here at Mass, celebrating what good things others can do musically, or by reading in public, or serving at Mass, or through the stories we share after Mass of achievements, or getting a new job or completing an essay or whatever it might be. We can then go home thanking God not only what He does in our own lives, but also what He’s doing in the lives of others. Moreover when we see someone excelling or having a great time: be glad for them, praise them, praise God for them! Whose gifts can you praise God for today?
Two, be assured that there is not a limited number of blessings out there. Those problems we face, those pains and inconveniences we endure: God’s grace is sufficient. Great is His faithfulness! Do not believe God does not have enough time for you, to forgive your sins, to love every bit of you, to answer your every prayer. God being kind and loving to someone else does not mean you’re going to get less. Sometimes when sin is ruling in our life we end up cutting ourselves off from knowing the blessings He gives to us because we’re too caught up with our own agenda. So, when we don’t make a Confession we’re slightly less convinced of God’s forgiveness. When we don’t turn up to a Mass, we’re slightly less aware of the blessings of being close to our Saviour. God does not cease giving; He won’t run out. This is the God who fed thousands and thousands in the miracles starting off with only fives loaves and two fishes.
Third, know God’s love for you and how important you are. God created us free to do whatever we want. More than that He created us clever enough to make decisions for ourselves. These are huge privileges and we realise how privileged we are when we realise how these two factors are the reasons for our own downfall. We might feel particularly aggrieved if our own generosity caused someone to let us down: for example if we said someone could borrow something which they then treated frivolously and ruined as a consequence. God would have every right to feel exactly like that when He sees what we do with our life and our freedom that He has given us. This provokes Him to righteous anger but in His mercy He forgives us. Don’t abuse those privileges and gifts: know God’s love for you individually.
In our Gospel today, Jesus uses the image of the burglar coming at an unanticipated hour. We have to be ready whenever He comes! One of the underlying assumptions of the parable is that we will be good at protecting what we have, that we will be guarding our material possessions, making sure our investments, our banks cards, our bike, our laptop, our phone has everything it needs to be protected. Jesus knows how much we human beings value these material possessions, even to a sinful level. Let us be similarly good at protecting our innocence, the gifts God has given us, the the graces we receive at this Mass, the faith that has been passed on to us.
In St Paul’s beautiful reflection on what love is in I Corinthians 13 we are reminded: “Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude; it does not insist on its own way.” Love, then, my friends is the perfect antidote to jealousy; Love is the perfect preparation for our Lord’s return. Put on love this Advent, love for God, love for our neighbour and He will find us watchful when He returns. Amen.